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La Crosse theater project banks on state help

Paul Snyder
paul.snyder@dailyreporter.com

Construction of a new building to house the La Crosse Community Theatre on the banks of the Mississippi River will happen only if the state Legislature votes to exempt the land from property taxes.

And even if the bill passes, there are no plans for when the building will be constructed, how much it will cost or how big it will be.

“If the bill passes, we will begin constructing a capital campaign and putting together plans,” said Jackie Jensen-Utz, executive director of the La Crosse Community Theatre. “But there is no timeline or estimate for the project, because first things first, we have to see if the bill passes.”

The theater group is in its 46th season on Main Street, in a building Jensen-Utz called “inadequate.” La Crosse Developer Don Weber offered to donate land for the theater next to his Riverside Center developments downtown.

But Jensen-Utz said even with the donation, the property taxes for the land could cost the theater company up to $200,000 annually.

The state constitution prohibits lawmakers from drafting bills that are site-specific for private construction projects. As a result, lawmakers propose legislation that avoids mentioning specific projects, but limits the scope of where tax exemptions may occur.

Neither of the La Crosse Community Theatre bill’s authors, state Rep. Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, or state Rep. Michael Huebsch, R-West Salem, was available for comment before deadline Tuesday. The bill was introduced last week and referred to the Assembly Committee on Urban and Local Affairs, where it likely will receive a hearing next month.

State Rep. Bob Ziegelbauer, D-Manitowoc, a member of the committee, said he has not yet studied the bill, but will try to be open-minded about it.

“You always start out with a little bit of skepticism, though,” he said.

Ziegelbauer said bills dealing with specific local projects or tax-incremental financing are common in the Senate or Assembly.

“There have been any number of local or de facto local bills already this session,” he said. “Each one is different, but it creates a problem, because the more you bend state rules against focusing on local projects, the less meaningful the rule is.

“Until you stand up and say, ‘No more,’ everyone tries to be the last one in.”

Even if the land gets an exemption from property taxes, Jensen-Utz said the theater group will still pay taxes for fire and police services. But with an annual budget of just more than $500,000, the organization cannot afford to do business along the river without the property tax exemption.

Since 2000, the La Crosse Community Theatre has looked at alternative building sites, Jensen-Utz said, but several ended up financially unviable. The donated land is a major plus, she said, and if the state passes the property tax-exemption bill, it gives the theater group its best chance to construct a more spacious building.

Even without designs, timelines or cost estimates, Jensen-Utz said lawmakers will have a guarantee of action if the bill passes.

“We wouldn’t be so passionate about this if we didn’t believe it could move forward,” she said. “This bill just means everything.”

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